4E: Extended Challenges

I’ve been saying for a while now that the skill challenges in D&D4e are a nifty idea that was poorly executed. The “extended challenges” rules are my attempt to fix that, essentially by adapting the Focus System rules from Arianrhod to the rules and general attitude of 4e. The result is a 3-page rules module that in theory should be easy to drop into a game with zero changes to how characters or anything else are handled.

I haven’t had a chance to try it out at all–our last attempt at getting back into 4e fizzled–and there are a few things I didn’t get around to fully fleshing out, but I figured I might as well fling it at the interwebs to see what people make of it.

4e Extended Challenges Rules PDF

Magical Burst Update

I’m getting fairly close to finishing the 4th draft of Magical Burst, which as I said will hopefully be the last major revision before publication. Naturally when I could’ve been working on it I instead blathered for 1600 or so words about working on it.

Thematic Stuff
One thing that’s been on my mind a bit lately is the thematic underpinnings of magical girl anime. Anime is a weirdly skewed window into a particular culture, and magical girl anime straddles at least two distinct segments of that culture. There’s magical girl stuff aimed at little girls, which is more likely to have women in creative roles, but at the same time is extremely mainstream. Sailor Moon was the queen (and in some ways the originator) of this phenomenon, though Precure pretty clearly holds the crown right now (at least until Sailor Moon Crystal starts up). There’s also magical girl stuff aimed at adult male otaku, and while Madoka Magica is unusually restrained in a lot of ways (nary a panty shot to be seen for one thing), it’s still mainly a show very much by and for men. Where the show displays a lot of restraint, the merchandise and the fandom certainly don’t, and if for some reason you decide you want plastic figures of the characters in swimsuits, there’s official merchandise for you.

The shows aimed at girls are hard for me to fully take in. They present a lot of ideas about femininity, and those are grounded in a foreign culture and put through the filter of a show for little girls to watch in the morning. The actual style of storytelling is in my experience pretty similar to sentai shows, with the bad guys doing stuff that twists a characters’ desires in order to do evil. In magical girl anime stereotypically girly stuff like clothes and jewelry and dancing can be the focus a lot of the time, but they’ll also feature things like chess tournaments and martial arts where it fits the characters. Sailor Moon has the brainy Sailor Mercury and the tomboy Sailor Jupiter among the heroines, for example. As Lauren Faust put it, “There’s more than one way to be a girl.” Magical girl anime for girls tends to treat femininity as a virtue, but it presents many different kinds of femininity. It also has an aspirational streak, showing the characters striving for various notions of happiness and success. Sometimes this comes off as shallow and materialistic, and other times it can be pleasantly altruistic or otherwise noble.[1] I’m reminded of the thing that being girly isn’t anti-feminist, only the notion that all girls must be that way rather than being free to choose.

Her name is literally "Love." Not "ai," but the word "Love" in English.
Her name is literally “Love.” Not “ai,” but the word “Love” in English.

The issues with male-oriented magical girl shows are more apparent in titles like Lyrical Nanoha and Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Ilya, which although not without substance, have some pretty gross male-oriented fanservice at times, compounded by rather young characters. The stories tend to have very little to do with femininity, and instead play out a lot more like other genres of anime. Nanoha has a female protagonist and most of the major characters are also female, but in a lot of ways it’s more like an unusually succinct shounen fighting series. There’s a greater than usual emphasis on themes of friendship in Nanoha, but then that’s true of, say, One Piece as well. Friendship and striving to accomplish things and so on are really important values in Japanese culture, and very popular among boys.

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Magical Burst belongs to the Madoka camp more than the Precure camp. For starters, the game is by an adult male designer, and if I were going to make a game aimed at anything like the girl-oriented magical girl anime and its original target audience, it’d look very different.[2] I’m certainly not going to put deliberate fanservice into the game, but I have no illusions about what gender the majority of the audience is going to be. It’s also an RPG, which means that a certain portion of the thematic content comes from how the particular gaming group comes at it.

I also took some influence from Superflat. Superflat is an art movement from Japan that’s a bit pretentious and hard to explain, but the core of it is exposing the absurdity of certain aspects of Japanese culture, in particular expressions of powerlessness and the lack of distinction between product art and fine art. As a result, Superflat art shows include a lot of outright bizarre stuff that uses imagery from anime and such. Magical Burst’s use of a zillion d66 tables that put a kaleidoscope of weird images and tropes in front of you is very much from Maid RPG, and even more so Magical Burst asks you to take a disparate mass of images and try to make some sense out of it. Although it doesn’t perfectly line up with Madoka Magica (on purpose), I want it to help foster some of the feeling of strangeness I and doubtless many others felt in the first episode when Madoka and Sayka find themselves inside a witch’s barrier. Looking at my introduction to the setting I see a lot of stuff about alienation, about lacking answers, which I think has a bit to do with how I feel about real life. So there’s that.

The world is a vast place, but although mankind as always told stories of magic, to their tribes, to themselves, to the night sky, men have never held it in their grasp. Magic is real even so. Magic is dangerous and terrible and beautiful. Magic is our only weapon against magic. Perhaps someday the world will forgive you for using it, but for now it hates you for it, hates your good intentions as well as your base desires. That is the world you will live in, a magical world.

Rules Stuff
On the design front, I wound up doing some major streamlining of the Fallout rules. Naturally this involved making a bunch more tables, since among other things I decided to make d66 tables for the two levels of Distortion type fallout. (My favorite particular entry being “Small candies rain down from the sky.”) A big part of the point of having tables is to provide inspiration so that you’re less likely to get stuck trying to think of something on the fly, so it made sense to have tables rather than just giving a handful of examples. It was really fun to come up with Magic distortions, and very difficult to come up with ones for Heart and Fury that would be impactful but not too out there. That also means that so far the game is up to about thirty d66 tables in it. So yeah. I also revamped the Change tables, trying to keep them from being overt fetish fuel, overly contextual, or any number of other problems. They’re still really out there, but hopefully better overall. I’m definitely liking how the Fallout rules are looking in general.

The three Specializations and the related Magical Talents are now done, albeit in a first draft kind of way. The Witch, which specializes in Attack, was probably the easiest to design, since “does more damage” is a pretty simple thing to accomplish. For the Knight (Defense) I really want to make sure such characters can be active enough to be fun to play, and absolutely not MMO tanks. For the Priestess (Support), D&D4e’s leader classes provide a lot of inspiration, though there’s also potential for doing some interesting things that are specific to this game, like playing around with Overcharge. I want the roles to be relatively flexible, with the ability to do some stuff outside your specialization’s role. The Priestess has a better healing talent, but anyone can get a healing talent, for example.

The big thing I’m trying to figure out right now is how to work the Sorcery rules, which essentially means coming up with an improvised magic system (or a stunting system if you prefer). The core idea at the moment is simply that you make a Support challenge with a target number depending on the effect you want, plus some stuff to make your life interesting if you fail or don’t succeed quite enough. Threading the needle of making something that can cover a huge variety of possible magic effects without being too complicated is proving a really interesting challenge.

It’s hard to say how soon I’ll get it done–I certainly don’t have any shortage of other things I need to get done, not to mention my day job having some tumult–but assuming I can untangle the remaining knots there’s not too much left to do. From there I’m hoping to launch into some pretty intensive playtesting, because I feel like I need to really learn the ins and outs of the system I’ve made, make some important refinements, and collect and communicate knowledge of how to play. Also, it’ll motivate me to get back into role-playing proper, which I haven’t been doing anywhere near as much as I’d like due to scheduling issues.


[1]Sentai shows are very similar to magical girl anime in this respect, which makes sense since they’re the early morning show for boys. Some day I really need to finish my Tokyo Heroes RPG, which covers both sentai and Sailor Moon style magical girls.

[2]My friend Aaron Smith is in fact working on a game aimed at more traditional magical girls, and it’s looking quite good and totally different from Magical Burst.

Card Games Update

Time for an update on where I’m at with card game projects, notably i.hate.everyone and a new magical girl battle card game. (Did that get your attention?)

A little while back Clay did the graphic design for fancy i.hate.everyone cards, and I got a prototype made through DriveThruCards. Daniel Solis’ card design tutorial covers using the Data Merge feature in InDesign to automatically slot text into a card template, which made the whole thing much easier and generally more bearable to do, though I find InDesign bizarre and infuriating for all sorts of things. (It’s really, really weird to me that Adobe apparently doesn’t think anyone would want to import a Photoshop file into InDesign without completely flattening it.) Anyway, the results were pretty excellent all around,[1] and i.h.e is becoming the time-wasting card game of choice with me and my friends. I had upped the number of cards with special effects to about 1 in 4, and all the shenanigans with drawing, discarding, and trading cards were a lot of fun. I’m also very happy with the quality of printing from DTC, though a game with 380 cards is less than optimum both in terms of pricing and the fact that they don’t currently sell boxes that hold that many (though when I corresponded with Brian via email he said that’s something they’re working on.) Anyway, here’s a look at the cards!

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Right now the plan is to tweak things a little bit, and then start sales of both i.hate.everyone and i.hate.fandom through DriveThruCards. I’ve also already started on the first expansion, i.hate.bronies, which is indeed My Little Pony themed and weird and terrible and I already commissioned a pony mascot for it named Flippy.

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Anyway, setting that aside, playing a bunch of Hearthstone (Blizzard’s new freemium online Warcraft tie-in CCG) put the idea of making some kind of battle card game thing into my head. Which I think is a good thing because I really should branch out beyond goofy stuff with words on cards. I specifically want to do something non-collectible (not that a CCG would be practical anyway) partly because losing solely because the opponent has more time and money and thus just inherently better cards is my least favorite part of playing Hearthstone. (And I really don’t remember it being that pronounced when I was playing Magic in high school.) Looking for an actual theme, I hit on the idea of doing a game about magical girls fighting, and thus a Magical Burst tie in was entirely natural, so the game I’m working on is tentatively titled “Magical Arena.”

I wound up messing around with various card games a bit, notably the new Adventure Time Card Wars game (which is really weird) and the WCW Nitro TCG (which some of my friends got way into because it was cheap, and which is way more clever than anyone would ever suspect), and I still can’t wrap my head around Weiss Schwarz (but there are some broad ideas in it that seem neat). The game that started forming in my head was a weird hybrid of Nitro, the plot system from Shinobigami, and a few other random things, and I’m already barreling towards having a playable prototype. It’ll also involve an Overcharge Deck, which gives you random effects if you try to push yourself too hard in one turn.

I’ve also been getting quite a bit done with Magical Burst proper, and I’ll be posting an update on that soon.


[1]When I playtested it with some friends earlier this week I was informed that the cards smell like porno mags, which I guess is appropriate.

Roles

I’ve been saying for a while now that I’m really looking forward to the games that draw on D&D4e for inspiration but improve on its ideas in various ways. (And I really need to get around to playing Last Stand some time soon.) One thing that I find especially fascinating is the use of roles (and the myriad things that flow from them). 4e’s roles show distinct inspiration from video games, but they’re also carefully tailored to the tabletop experience. They reinforce the notion of D&D as a team effort incredibly well, though they have certain drawbacks, like making non-standard party configurations potentially more difficult. (Early on we tried playing 4e without a Leader character. It was rough.)

In the typical MMO the three main roles are tank, DPS, and healer. Tanks are durable and can draw aggro (i.e., get the enemy AI to concentrate on them), DPS (damage per second) characters dish out lots of damage to take enemies down, and healers, you know, heal, and in particular keep the tank standing so the rest of the group can do their thing. “Crowd control” exists as a fourth role, though usually rolled into DPS or healing. Most of what I know about the finer points of MMORPG play I know from osmosis by having several friends who like to blather about it, but one thing people are really clear about is that relatively few players enjoy playing tanks, and good tank players are kind of hard to come by.

D&D4e’s four roles of Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller roughly correspond to tank, DPS, healer, and crowd control, but there are some very important key changes to make them function in a tabletop RPG. RPGs don’t generally have aggro mechanics, so rather than directly inducing enemies to attack them, defenders punish enemies for attacking anyone else. A monster that the fighter has marked can either attack the fighter, or take a -2 penalty to its attack on someone else and risk taking an opportunity attack. Defenders are still reactive (enough so that I didn’t enjoy playing them personally), but they’re definitely not as unpopular to play as tanks are in MMOs. Leaders meanwhile have a much stronger emphasis on buffing allies (or debuffing enemies in certain cases, notably the bard) with healing as an important but secondary function, thus avoiding the problem of “cleric as healbot.” Strikers meanwhile are pretty straightforward, whereas controllers were the one role that took some time for WotC to really figure out how to implement (much to the chagrin of many a wizard player), but could be a very useful support role once they hit stride with the design.

To a degree 4e’s roles are an extension of things that already existed in D&D. The meatshield fighter is an old cliche, and the cleric was pretty much the quintessential leader class well before 4e came along. There’s a degree of rigidity to the roles though, which makes them easier to use but harder to customize. For some people it went against expectations for particular, though it is a little silly to complain that to make a swashbuckler means writing “rogue” instead of “fighter” on your character sheet. On the other hand Sacred BBQ took the step of actually decoupling roles from classes, so that what in 4e would be Fighter/Warlord/Slayer as separate classes could become Defender-Fighter/Leader-Fighter/Striker-Fighter. (Plus it adds a “Blaster” role.)

This has been on my mind in part because I’ve been working more on Magical Burst, the new version of which adds three “Specializations” of Witch, Knight, and Priestess that emphasize Attack, Defense, and Support (and would roughly correspond to Striker, Defender, and Leader). These are deliberately “softer” roles, and the game lets you build a character that gets into the stuff other roles do (and more advanced characters have the option to outright take on a second role). Also, while a group with all three specializations could potentially synergize better, a group without the complete set ought to still be effective. On the other hand they’re still derivatives of the 4e formula, and what I’m most curious about is an implementation of roles that is substantially different from that.

MOBA games (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena; games like Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends) are the other major video game genre that has a concept of roles, though they’re also a genre I find totally inaccessible.[1] Consequently I’m not going to try to dissect and explain MOBA roles, since I’m pretty sure I’ll inevitably get stuff wrong, plus they’re fuzzy and vary between games anyway. I will note that the roles in MOBA games seem to be very strongly shaped by the way the game functions, in particular being so heavily team-based that solo play isn’t a thing that even makes sense, and having characters level up over the course of a match as a major gameplay element. Thus one of the major roles in MOBA games is the “Carry,” which starts weak but eventually gains a lot of power, so that it needs other players to “carry” it to that point. The arenas, which have a neutral area with “creeps” (NPC monsters) not allied to either team, allow for a “Jungler” role that earns XP by killing those creatures, and represents a potential threat to enemies that have to venture through the jungle.

The big takeaway here is that there are lots of possible ways to apportion roles. The trick is to come up with a set of specialties that fit together into an overall approach to the activities that the game involves. MOBAs have roles that are pretty different from MMOs I think because they have so many key gameplay elements that are so different. Having a character with an uneven power progression would pretty much be a screwup in an MMO, but since the basic unit of MOBA play is one match, it’s an avenue for differentiating the heroes. Roles for tabletop RPGs are a largely unexplored technique, and there are a lot of areas where it could go in new and interesting places. To me the big thing there is the possibility of roles that effectively address non-combat stuff. D&D4e has a lot more support for non-combat stuff than an MMO, but skills are one of the most haphazard parts of the game, and other non-combat abilities are all over the place. Fighters are arbitrarily screwed over for skills,[2] while bards could be utter monsters in terms of using skills. To some extent there’s already a notion of having characters that specialize in being the Face, the Nature Guy, the Techie, etc. (The Risus Companion has pretty good writeups of that kind of thing.) The difference there is that that kind of specialization lends itself more to particular characters being the one guy in the group who can handle a particular obstacle, whereas the advantage of combat roles is that everyone can more or less always contribute to the group’s success without being relegated to the sidelines. How to go about crafting roles is still above my head, but it’s something I’m really interested in exploring in the future.

[1]I’m not good at tactics, and I’m not good at keeping track of lots of things at once, least of all in small amounts of time. MOBAs are derived from RTS games, which are already pretty much the perfect storm of a Game Not For Ewen in basically every way, and add a need for extremely tight teamwork.
[2]Even Rob Heinsoo, the guy who is responsible for keeping wizards in D&D4e from being just plain better “because magic,” initially had fighters and paladins have crap for skill (background) ranks in 13th Age.

Yaruki Zero Podcast #23: The Trumpet

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Yaruki Zero Podcast #23 (26 minutes, 51 seconds)

Listening to way, waaaaay too much of The Bugle (a comedy news podcast by John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman), I wound up doing a YKZ podcast that’s a weird mix of my usual blather and some weird attempts at humor. I talk in silly bullshit mode about the Super Bowl (be sure to check out the Breaking Madden Super Bowl) and some weird stuff from the news, and in normal mode about i.hate.everyone and Kickstarter stuff. (And you should totally check out The Whispering Road, Dice Empire, and Japanese: The Game.)

This podcast uses selections from the song “Click Click” by Grünemusik, available for free from Jamendo.com. If you like the song, consider buying some CDs from Nankado’s website.

Caricature of Ewen courtesy of C. Ellis.

More on i.hate.everyone

The other day I brought my prototype of i.hate.everyone along when I went to hang out with some friends, kind of on a whim and kind of because it’s so much lighter than my Cards Against Humanity set.[1] That in turn led to me getting inspired to work on i.h.e more, and in particular to try to finish up a functional prototype of i.hate.fandom, the geeky alternate set I’d started working on a while back. My experience with creating cards on geeky subjects for CAH was that it was very easy to come up with cards that made sense to me but were alien to a lot of my friends, which was part of the inspiration for having flavor text (a la Apples to Apples) in i.h.e, though it was a lot less necessary for general stuff than for geeky stuff (hence the ones in i.h.e wound up being more of an avenue for sarcastic jokes). Limiting the selection to stuff that was reasonably widely known also made it harder to come up with geeky cards, though I did finally manage to put together an initial set, if one that overdoes certain topics.

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I posted the current prototype of i.hate.everyone ages ago (some of the more topical cards feel out of date; Tebowing isn’t exactly making headlines these days). The rules are so far unchanged from then, but here are the current decks for i.hate.fandom. I make these decks by printing the Status Cards on yellow cardstock and the Comment Cards on white cardstock, since otherwise they’d be hard to distinguish.

i.hate.fandom Status Cards
i.hate.fandom Comment Cards

I also finally got around to playing We Didn’t Playtest This At All, a silly party game from Asmadi Games. It turns nonsensical, pointless, time-wasting gameplay into an artform. To get the full effect you have to play several games, during which players will routinely be made to lose by random card effects. What pushes it into Japanese game show territory is things like how certain cards make you not use certain pronouns (even when they appear on cards!). At one point two of my friends were in a duel where they couldn’t use I, me, my, you, your, they, or their, and resorted to silent pantomime to play out the rest of the game. I want to keep the effects in i.h.e a bit less crazy (less “you lose,” more “discard a card” or “lose 1 Like”), but having random constraints on what players are allowed to do can have amazing results and generally help a game live up to being a “party” game. It’s also the main thing that keeps i.h.e from just being a CAH clone, so I want it to be interesting and prevalent in play.

Presently my plan for i.h.e is to make it into a series of DriveThruCards products, with both full, independently playable base sets (the core i.hate.everyone plus i.hate.fandom being the first of these), and mini-expansions that I can easily create and keep topical. Like a lot of other similar games, making new content is basically a matter of putting text on cards, and POD will let me make all kinds of weird little sets for very specific groups if I want, and pretty quickly too. I asked Clay Gardner to make card designs for me, since this will be fronts and backs for two types of cards and nothing else, rather than the logo-making nightmares of Channel A. With some playtesting I should be ready to move to the “fancy prototype” stage fairly soon.


[1]Which is partly my own fault for insisting on getting all of the expansions, plus Crabs Adjust Humidity, plus making some cards of my own.

Yaruki Zero Podcast #22: 2013 in Review

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Yaruki Zero Podcast #22 (39 minutes, 42 seconds)

2013 was quite a year for me, plus I haven’t done a proper podcast in ages (literally over 2 years…), so I decided to do an overview of my year, covering the Channel A and Golden Sky Stories Kickstarters, Maid RPG, Fate and Adventures of the Space Patrol, Destiny Dice, Beyond Otaku Dreams, and a few other odds and ends.

This podcast uses selections from the song “Click Click” by Grünemusik, available for free from Jamendo.com. If you like the song, consider buying some CDs from Nankado’s website.

Caricature of Ewen courtesy of C. Ellis.